When Objectivity Knocks: Facilitating Change in Higher Education Marketing

Last summer we worked with Earlham College in Indiana to articulate, “brand” and launch a signature experience called EPIC, The Earlham Plan for Integrative Collaboration. The Plan came to fruition through a process of discovery, analysis and collaborative dialog about the distinctive ways Earlham thinks about and delivers its educational experience. The process wasn’t particularly easy.

The College had deliberated about solutions, invested in market research and self-examination and had arrived at a collection of new offerings that brought their strong liberal arts perspective more in touch with practicality. Earlham had been counseled and encouraged by market research data to deliver programs that reflected greater emphasis on global engagement and leadership development. The working committees at the College struggled to find meaningful ways to connect their new programs with those themes.

When RHB was retained, we arrived with some knowledge from past experiences under our belts from working with other Quaker-founded institutions. We were conscious of the importance of individual dignity within the focus on community. We were aware that consensus might extend the time frame. Still, we were given a budget and a deadline and we knew we had to deliver.

So we set to work, beginning with some interviews. We met with the deans and department heads who were shaping new programs. We rolled out paper on long tables inviting faculty members on the curriculum committees to write and draw their ideas. We drew and re-drew models to illustrate how the new programs could represent a more cohesive whole. We listened to the pros and cons, the strategies and the “never-in-a-million-years” rebuttals, the dreams and ideas.

Despite our best preparation to come alongside and guide, I’m guessing we came across more like tornadoes than gentle breezes. Our questions probed community habits and ways of doing things. We stepped into the middle of respected processes without firsthand experience of being part of the community for the previous several years of planning. We disrupted with our perspectives and ideas.

We wondered out loud: Why would a school founded on Quaker values seek to combine a global stance and leadership? How would those themes be believable coming from Richmond, Indiana? How could Earlham distinctively equip students for those challenges? And while those themes are important to the market, we questioned whether Earlham was trying to fit into a market space that might not suit them.  Could they instead create a compelling way to invite the market to their one-of-a-kind space?

One of the many bright spots in our campus conversations disclosed the development of a physical space on campus that would house a collaborative workshop of sorts. As we talked about the activities that might occur in that space, we began to envision how collaboration—a true hallmark of the Earlham experience—might be a more coherent theme than either “global” or “leadership.” What Earlham brought to the market better than other institutions was the ability to engage in deep and meaningful exchange to solve problems that matter. Their Quaker heritage, values and practices allowed them to deliver knowledge about collaborative skills and civil discourse better than other schools.

The resulting RHB recommendations led to the adoption of EPIC, the Earlham Plan for Integrative Collaboration, that brought together interdisciplinary learning opportunities with hands-on experiences to further equip students for professional and service excellence. We named the new space that housed many of the activities and offices of faculty leading EPIC the CoLab, short for CoLaboratory, and it has quickly become a center for wide-ranging interdisciplinary and experiential learning.

A few weeks ago, we posted Sam’s good counsel about what you and your marketing team can—and should— do yourself and where to invest in outside support. He suggested that using good external expertise in marketing (and any endeavor for that matter) brings you objectivity, perspective and interpretation of experience to expression. Though sometimes messy, frustrating and disorienting to participants, we were doing what we were retained to do for Earlham: disrupt with objectivity in order to arrive at a solution. Our task was to help those very close to the assignment get out from under the assumptions they were working with to look more objectively at the puzzle pieces. Without our strong emotional tie to the institution or the opportunity (though we certainly love all our clients and thrill at their best futures), we could evaluate potential solutions for what they were: potential solutions. We could apply unattached evaluative measures to consider new opportunities and possibilities.

Seeking objectivity and welcoming it

While you may acknowledge the benefit of an outside, objective look at your situation, you may find difficulty in welcoming an outsider’s perspective. To begin, an outsider’s ability to “get” your institution and circumstances may be suspect. After all, how could someone without the benefit of full engagement in your mission, deep knowledge of your history or political understanding of your community possibly suggest workable solutions? That’s precisely the benefit; without the weight of those factors, an outsider can objectively assess the circumstances that may lead you to fresh and creative thinking.

Second, you may find it difficult to achieve the support of your colleagues or other influential voices on campus in welcoming a “consultant.” You will not be surprised that we frequently hear, “We’re just not into consultants”, or “Our president hates consultants.”

How can you gain the most when you seek objectivity? The five factors that follow may encourage you in preparing for your work with an outsider:

1. Know what you know.

Be confident about what you know, particularly about your institution. You have experience, exposure and expertise that will be vitally important to solving the challenge before you. Granted, you don’t know everything, and neither does your consultant. That is why it is critical that you bring your knowledge and perspective to the table. Your consultant will depend on you to bring facts as well as perspectives. Your seeming lack of objectivity, because you are so close to the issues, will balance your consultant’s point of view. And the intersection between those two points of view will likely spark a solution.

2. Ask questions.

Be inquisitive with your consultant. You’ll be asked dozens of questions. Ask back. The significant conversations that ensue from your Q&A sessions will yield better thinking. When you hear an unusual question, it’s fine to ask back: Why do you think that may be important? If you hear inaccuracies voiced, ask: Where did you find that information? When suggestions are made, it’s good to ask: How did you arrive at that conclusion or recommendation?

3. Be open.

Brace yourself. The summaries/suggestions/recommendations that you receive from your consultant may be out of the ordinary—for you. Try not to react immediately. Let the idea sit with you before instantly dismissing it. Different can be very good; weird might, in fact, be right–for you!  By getting all the ideas on the table, you’ll be better postured to move to an evaluative phase. Objectivity dredges up interesting facts and ideas. Set your mind and heart in open mode to see possibility in the crazy.

4. Be willing.

On a related note, be courageous in your willingness to stand apart from the pack. Objectivity may ask hard questions, but you want to answer them to help differentiate your institution and to identify a more distinctive market position. Embrace what you discover and be willing to own your outstanding DNA. Rewards can be found in risk.

5. Anticipate disruption and change.

The work of problem-solving can be messy and uncomfortable when an objective perspective gets thrown into your deliberations. Ideas are challenged. Norms are questioned. Silos are dismantled. Channel this disruption for good. Let new ideas, new norms and new relationships lead you to greater success for you and your institution. Alert your team and colleagues that messiness in the process is inevitable and celebrate rather than panic when it occurs.

RHB’s commitment to coherence—telling the truth—with our clients permeates our strategies for market research and drives our strategic planning. If you struggle within your campus community to progress with initiatives or are inhibited from moving forward with your marketing strategies, objectivity may be the key to overcoming the obstacles that make real change in higher education so elusive.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.